Celebrities and the Barnum Effect

That American culture is preoccupied with celebrity is nothing new. However, the usual explanations for this — they are our new aristocracy; they unify a mass culture; they symbolize our collective aspirations — seem like oversimplifications, truisms. As the weekly photo tabloids and daily entertainment-news shows proliferate, the armies of editors, producers, public-relations specialists, and paparazzi work around the clock to keep the business of fame running smoothly: they furnish anecdotes both humanizing and humiliating; they furbish images of stars that simultaneously glamorize and embarrass celebrities; they continuously smooth the trajectory of the stars’ rise and fall, calibrating just how soon the public needs new faces and what it will tolerate from the old ones. Most important, these “armies” frame all this information in ways that the public may easily digest, so that people may at once envy, identify, and condemn the captors of their imaginations.

It seems that we thrive on this kind of culturally induced ambiguity, that we delight in being able to assume contradictory positions simultaneously. It helps explain the enduring appeal of manipulative and misleading advertising, which seems to at once flatter and condescend to us, and we enjoy it both when we’re fooled and when we catch these ads at their tricks. There’s that moment of fatuous self-satisfaction when we think, “How dumb do these copywriters think we are? This whole premise is absurd! That truck can’t drive onto that mountain!” And then we realize that we’ve responded exactly how they hoped we would, that our jolt of disbelief has kept our attention fixed on the ad and imprinted its message on our minds.

P.T. Barnum was one of the first to systematically exploit this psychological hook with his ludicrous and extravagant freak shows. It didn’t matter that the mermaid was in the end an obvious fake. You reveled in the opportunity to suspend disbelief, to entertain the possibility of imaginative worlds, or to clutch your disbelief more steadfastly, and reaffirm for yourself that you’re no rube. The same is true of all contemporary entertainment, with its fictitious scenarios and counterfactual histories, and elaborate CGI trompe l’oeils. We can delight in the expense and effort to which entire mammoth industries have gone to fool us, or we can revel in how adept we are at seeing through their designs. Or, what most likely happens, is we experience both; oscillating between the two so quickly that they seem simultaneous.

That we can adopt many different perspectives at once is the great advantage entertainment has over experience and that is likely the reason why we prefer reading novels, watching movies, and listening to other people have conversations on the radio instead of going to the trouble of doing anything ourselves. By choosing entertainment, we afford ourselves far more control over our how we feel even as we surrender control over what we can accomplish. In this sense, voyeurism is far more fulfilling than participation. In life, we’re locked into our limited perspective, forced to focus on what is expected of us in the moment and to weigh the consequences of what we might or might not do. But watching a film, we can identify with any of the characters depicted, or even better, with the camera itself and its God’s eye view, and we can flip between these perspectives as much as we want, deriving satisfaction from our very vacillation.

This is true of our shopping experiences, as well. Since commodities are marketed as spectacle, as keys to new styles of life, rather than for their use value, the display, inspection, and purchase of a commodity is like a complete theatrical experience, with its own predictable narrative arc, inviting its own particular willing suspension of disbelief. So now instead of buying tickets to a freak show to be fooled, we buy second-rate consumer goods that fail to deliver the magic that we were delightfully fooled into thinking they embodied. QVC, the Home Shopping Network, the 99-cent superstore: these are the Barnum freak show modernized. We enjoy the fantasy that the goods arouse, and then after their shoddy reality sets in, we tip our caps to the ingenuity by which we were led to indulge the fantasy. We might call this the Barnum effect, when we find ourselves flattered by the effort our culture makes to try to fool us, manipulating the evidence our senses provide in order to please us with the cognitive dissonance.

Consumer magazines, for example, are machines for manufacturing cognitive dissonance: relentlessly promulgating mixed messages, advising us to be ourselves while insisting we diet, praising independent spirit while urging consumption conformity. We enjoy the jumbled fantasies they inspire even as their incoherence makes us anxious — anxious of missing out or of not fitting in or of not really understanding what’s going on a là Mr. Jones — and that anxiety leads us to keep reading, more and more and more, with a pleasure that’s inseparable from dread.

In his study of sources of happiness under market democracy, economist Robert Lane counts cognitive dissonance as displeasing ambivalence: a stressful confusion. But with vicarious entertainment, our ability to be many things at once, to hold contradictory subject positions, can also be an invitation to suspend rationality and to let go of what is often the source of stress — the rational, realistic appraisal of one’s circumstances — and indulge in an unreal world where irrationality is harmless fun or proof of the triumphantly creative human spirit or some such nonsense. So we enjoy the fact that ads are lying to us even as we begin to believe their lies. We respect them for trying to fool us, and we enjoy that in being fooled we enter a fantastic world of possibility more fulfilling than our own. This is the essence of current TV ads’ assault on logic, e.g., “Coors Light is the coldest tasting beer”. But that we need these ad-induced fantasies as compensation is a sad comment on how actual experience under consumer capitalism so consistently lets us down.

Actual experience is never designed but discovered. But, as Thomas de Zengotita argues in the December 2004 Harper’s, we live in a world where virtually every stimulus presents itself as designed especially for us. As de Zengotita puts it, this is “big-time flattery”, and it goes a long way toward masking the way these same stimuli, which assault us constantly in virtually every aspect of our daily lives, infect us with the ideology they carry about the essential rightness of the world as it is, despite all its manifest inequities and systems of exploitation.

In his essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”(Lenin and Philosophy, Monthly Review Press, 1971), Louis Althusser goes even further, suggesting that these moments in which the culture appears to cater to us actually make us in their image. When we respond to an ad or a salesperson or a policeman or an op-ed piece when they call out (metaphorically or literally) “Hey, you”, we become the subject they expect us to be, and we misinterpret the values they’ve instilled in us as desires we already had. Consequently, we become reliant on these things that call to us for a stable sense of self; we become addicted to the sense of significance they give us. Here the Barnum effect becomes exponential: Not only are we catered to with pleasing trickery, but the catering itself is a trick, fooling us into thinking we have a self that enjoys to be fooled.

Of all the aspects of culture vying for our attention, shouting “Hey, you” at us, celebrities must be the most vociferous. After all, they exist only because of the attention they get; without it, they are nothing. Thus they work the hardest to flatter us; they devote their lives remaking themselves in the image of the public. “They are so needy, actually,” de Zengotita explains, “dressing up, dieting, touring, posing, exposing privacies, cavorting desperately, endlessly before us.” As a consequence, celebrities have “instilled and reinforced values and conditioned people’s life choices, especially style, the attitude that gets you through the day,” or in other words, they “posit and reflect the selves their fans have chosen to be.”

So what, then, does a celebrity like Paris Hilton reveal about the admirers who constitute her? If a person is famous for some specific accomplishment, then to appreciate that person requires some understanding of the criteria. You have to understand something about music, or at least pretend to, to be interested in the doings of a person famous for music. But to be interested in someone famous for no reason requires no criteria, no prior knowledge or understanding. Instead, it requires a suspension of such things, a willingness to put aside questions of merit and be fascinated for no good rational reason at all. These are the ultimate celebrities, purified of the tyranny of criteria. In this sense, celebrities of the Paris Hilton order are the ultimate commodities, which we can consume over and over again in search of that buzz of significance and that thrill of being fooled. So like Barnum’s transparent trickeries, the Paris Hiltons of the world offer an escape from technocratic rationality, inspiring a dizzy flight of fancy wherein causes have no relation to effects. She is a walking Barnum effect, which is strengthened by every iota of attention she receives for receiving so much attention.

Since work has been thoroughly demonized as an unfortunate necessity, as the unhappy result of original sin, the ability to do something for no reason at all is extremely attractive in our society, the ultimate luxury, which naturally attaches to the extremely wealthy — Paris Hilton — who simply manifest that capacity, the ability to exist beyond criteria, beyond evaluation, to simply exist at the level of pure impulse. If our work and leisure time are subject to equally rationalized calculation, it’s only natural that our dreams would be haunted by these visions of unwarranted, incalculable celebrity; if we are oppressed by merit and injustice, we would naturally seek escape in someone with no merit before whom the logic of justice withers.

In a society oversaturated with manipulative symbols, it must come as a relief to become preoccupied with one symbol that seems filled to bursting with its own emptiness, with its own magnificent insignificance. Pure celebrity, celebrity for no reason, allows for pure fascination, fascination with no criteria and no limits and no expectations or explanations. This is pure freedom: “pure” the way a page is blank.

Michel Foucault famously used the panopticon — Jeremy Bentham’s idea for a prison in which a ring of cells all face a tower in the center, from which an unseen person could surveil them all with utmost efficiency — as a metaphor for modern society, in which power operates automatically independent of the malevolent will of any one who could be identified as “the man”. Foucault explains it this way: “He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he spontaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection” (Discipline and Punish, Pantheon, 1977).

Celebrities turn the idea of the panopticon inside out. They hold sway over us by being inescapably visible. But their extreme visibility tends to render all ordinary people invisible, liberating them to a degree from the constraints of power. Instead of living haunted by the very real notion that we should live as if we are observable from every possible angle (because we are), we can live as though we are perfectly insignificant. The celebrities bear the burden of excruciatingly scrutinized selfhood so that we don’t have to.

But de Zengotita insists we are not content with this transcendence. He argues that the entitlement implicit in the media’s fawning attention to us, its audience, makes us yearn for it to regale us more overtly. “Celebrities held a monopoly on the most scarce and precious resource in a mediated society: attention,” de Zengotita explains. Thus when technology (camcorders, video phones, cable TV, the Internet) permitted, people rushed to try to make celebrities of themselves: teenagers are suddenly desperate to become Real World cast members and people (like me) are suddenly blogging their most mundane thoughts. For de Zengotita, this proves that everyone lives with a level of self-consciousness that makes Method actors of us all, living worked-up responses to life rather than actually experiencing it in some more straightforward, unmediated fashion. He suggests that we have come to hold the condition of anonymity as a kind of trauma, akin to those of people who appear on daytime TV talk shows who recoup their losses at being betrayed by fate by earning a modicum of public recognition.

So there’s a dialectic between the joys of anonymity and public recognition that mirrors the way a mass-produced, standardized object can seem so perfect for me specifically after I’ve bought it, right up until that moment I feel like the producers of that object predicted my desires a little too accurately. By having what I want predicted, I become like a celebrity, in that my little whims are matters of public record, but I also become a sheep, whose wants are obvious because they are everybody else’s, and that’s because I’m nobody, with no innate passion of my own to occupy the space where the culturally-conjured desires come to reside in me. As I shift between wanting to be somebody and being nobody, I end up ignoring what’s really there, what that innate passion could have been, what I might have been if I wasn’t caught up in my own self-consciousness. This is the ultimate Barnum effect: the delightful and diverting trick I play on myself in wondering who I think I am instead of simply being somebody.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.